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BET.com
updated 4/9/2004 5:15:49 PM ET 2004-04-09T21:15:49

Had I seen "Johnson Family Vacation" in an empty theater, I doubt I would have laughed at all. Despite the fact that I truly like Cedric the Entertainer, I couldn't help but stare in silence as most of the film's "funny" scenes sat dead on the screen.

Add in the fact that the humor fluctuated between being Disney channel bland and PG-13 racy, this "Vacation" was feeling more like work. However, I didn't see it alone. I was surrounded by 100 or so other Black folks that simply would not stop laughing. And you know what they say about laughter being contagious.

But before you get the impression that I was simply swept away in a tide of public opinion, understand that it took a good half an hour before I even giggled -- not a good sign for a comedy.

And that's probably because the first third of the film isn't a movie at all. It's a star-studded commercial for the Lincoln Navigator - the SUV into which Nate Johnson (Cedric) packs his son DJ (Bow Wow), two daughters (Solange Knowles and Gabby Soleil) and his estranged wife (Vanessa Williams) to attend a family reunion in Missouri.

Much to DJ's delight the Lincoln dealer forgets to install his dad's 8-track and instead pimps out the family ride with Burberry interior, Sprewells and hydraulics. Naturally, we're supposed to be in stitches as the uptight Nate drives through his upper-class neighborhood in something you'd expect Shaq to push, but somehow it just isn't funny.

If things get better once the family gets on the road, it's partially because they are driving in familiar territory. It's hard to make a film about a family on the road without making immediate references to the classic "National Lampoon's Vacation" series, and there are parts that play like homages - including a hotel pool scene that has Cedric running around in his birthday suit.

Cedric, like Chevy Chase, plays the dad as an amiable square obsessed with making good time and taking as few potty breaks as humanly possible. His wife, Dorothy, who left because Nate was unwilling to support her dreams of becoming an accountant (what?!!?) is a bit more frosty and is obviously only along for the ride to appease the kids.

While Bow Wow showed real potential in "Like Mike," he isn't given much to do here except be the ultra-hip kid with dreams of being a rapper - imagine that.
Beyonce's baby sister is a typical teen with a cell phone surgically attached to her head who constantly cracks gum.

However, like "Lampoon," this really isn't about the kids. It's about Nate and Dorothy rediscovering what they love about each other, a sweet theme whose resolution you can see coming 10 minutes into the film.

However, there are small touches that work much better and more consistently. During a pit stop at a Native American casino, Nate pushes management to see how "real Indians" live.

So to appease his cultural ignorance, one of the security guards dresses in traditional headgear and loincloth, to the delight of the openly horny Solange, and promptly misguides the Johnson clan into the middle of nowhere.

It's a funny bit that points out the little known fact that Black folks can believe outdated racial stereotypes, too.

Another element that finds its mark is Nate's adversarial relationship with his brother, Mac (Steve Harvey). The two constantly compete for the coveted Family of the Year trophy at each reunion, buttering up the judge, their mother, with bigger and bigger gifts.

One scene has Harvey delivering a flat-screen TV, which his mother tells him to place between her twin pictures of everybody's two favorite White men, JFK and Jesus.

The best scene finds the two competing in giving the best grace over food, which devolves into a sanctified version of the dozens. Their time working together on TV has clearly paid off, as they feel natural around each other.

But it's Cedric doubling as a feisty family Uncle that gets the biggest laughs. Looking like a slightly younger, gap-toothed relative of Eddie from "Barbershop," Cedric seems the most at ease when putting on an accent and wearing a wig.

By no means is "Johnson" a great film or even Cedric's best work. It's uneven and only truly funny in spots. Still, writers Todd Jones and Earl Richey Jones should be commended for trying to make us laugh without relying on blatant stereotypes, funny or not.

(I laugh at "Friday" even as I cringe). Instead, they offer Black characters who are distinctively Black, without embarrassing you or shooting for the lowest common denominator for a quick laugh. In the end, the two have attempted to create wonderful Black family entertainment, an honorable goal even if they didn't quite make it.

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